Joe Thornton Making a Case for His Second Hart

Hart = Most Valuable

*(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)
*(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

Unless one has a negative bias towards one of the following players based off ridiculous stereotypes, the following are the best centers in the National Hockey League: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux, John Tavares, Pavel Datsyuk.

Being below 50% in the face-off circle, star scorers Tyler Seguin and Steven Stamkos play much more of a traditional right wing type of game. This isn’t to say they are less skilled players than the group of 10 above, just simply not as valuable as the traditional center. If you are not called upon to take a face-off late in a tie game in your own zone, you simply don’t make my list of considerations for the Hart trophy.

The Hart Memorial Trophy is not supposed to be awarded to the game’s most talented player or even highest producing player. It is meant to be awarded to the player most valuable to his team. Haters of Joe Thornton (winner of the 2005-06 Hart Trophy) can roll their eyes and chastise yours truly for having “teal colored glasses” but there is a case to be made for the 35-year-old center.

First and foremost, the biggest reason Thornton has a case is because opponents never have the puck when he is on the ice. “Jumbo” leads the entire NHL (of players having skated over 400 even strength minutes) in Corsi-for percentage at 58.8. Not a fan of blocked shots? Well Thornton’s Fenwick-For percentage is 4th overall in the NHL at 58.0, and first in the league among forwards. His 28 points in 33 games is tied for 19th in the league, tied with Toews but behind Crosby, Getzlaf, Malkin, and Giroux.

Furthermore, 36.6% of Thornton’s face-offs are in the defensive zone, the 10th highest percentage in the league. The only other top line center (from the above group) in the top-10 in defensive zone start percentage is Giroux, 2nd overall with 40.3% of his face-offs in the defensive zone. Thornton’s overall 56.1% face-off percentage is fifth among the 10 elite centers.

PDO + Linemates

In terms of points, Thornton still leads the Sharks and as mentioned above is tied for 19th in the league despite a PDO of just 99.1. PDO, the added total of shooting percentage and save percentage isn’t entirely about luck, but is widely considered to be a tool to judge offensive and defensive puck luck. Filip Forsberg is no doubt having a great season, but how much of his 82.9% goals for percentage and 108.9 PDO attributed to having Pekka Rinne between the pipes? Forsberg’s 12% shooting percentage is nearly 3.5% better than Crosby, that almost certainly can’t last. Forsberg is a tremendous young player but he is not that much more of a dynamic goal producer than the game’s most talented player.

Joe Thornton Sharks
Thornton is still a top-tier forward (Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)

Crosby, Giroux, Toews, and Malkin all have significantly higher PDOs than Joe Thornton. The Sharks have an unusually low shooting percentage of just seven percent when Thornton is on the ice. A year ago Thornton’s on ice shooting percentage clocked in at around nine percent. Furthermore, Sharks goaltenders have saved only 92.16% percent of the shots against with Thornton on the ice. Logan Couture plays in front of the same goalies and has a 92.89% percent on-ice save percentage. What all this means is Thornton’s relatively low (for a top player) 51.5% goals for percentage at even strength is due to rise rather significantly as we go along.

Not to mention Thornton is doing all of this, without Brent Burns on his line anymore. The two of them did ridiculous damage on Western conference opponents last year. A year go, Burns’ 3.49 goals for per 60 even strength minutes was seventh best among all NHL forwards. Thornton last year clocked in at 3.29 per 60. This year, Thornton is currently 67th among forwards at just 2.25 goals for per 60 but is on pace for only six fewer points this season. While his current even strength line with Hertl and Pavelski is flourishing, neither of those two wingers bring the speed and separation abilities that Burns brought next to Thornton. Pavelski has never been fast and Hertl has lost a step of his explosion after a knee injury cut short his rookie season. Over the years, Thornton is used to having a speed winger on his line in either Patrick Marleau or Burns. This year he doesn’t have that element, and is still producing at the highest of levels.

To add to Thornton’s case, you have to look at the Sharks power-play. A lethal unit clicking at nearly 24% (fourth overall) features Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Pavelski and Burns. In the first 29 games, Thornton amassed just five power play points while Marleau and Couture piled up 10 each. With any luck at all, Thornton would certainly have a couple more power-play assists to his stat sheet. Consider this, last year the Sharks power-play struggled finishing just 20th in the league at 17.2%. Thornton picked up exactly 25% of his 76 points on the power-play a year ago, a season in which he and Burns crushed it at even strength. This season, with the even strength scoring down, but the power-play much improved, one would expect a much bigger percentage of Thornton’s points to come on the man advantage. However, only seven out of Thornton’s 28 points have come on the power-play, exactly 25%. No change in point production on the power-play. Again, he has been terribly unlucky points wise, could easily have 32 or 33 instead of 28.

Eye Test & Giroux

Thornton also plays the toughest minutes out of all forwards on the Sharks. He plays against top competition night in and night out and has more defensive zone starts than Marleau and Couture. Thornton leads the league in Corsi-for percentage but does so more frequently starting in the defensive zone than other elite forwards.

Joe Thornton put his playoff letdown behind him with a career high 17 points. (Photo by Herman Von Petri).
Joe Thornton put his playoff letdown behind him with a career high 17 points. (Photo by Herman Von Petri).

There are a lot of numbers to consider when gauging a player’s value to his team. None of them are perfect and there is still the need for the eye test. Watching the Sharks on a consistent basis, it makes one cringe to imagine just how much worse they would be without Thornton. Couture bumped up to top line duties, both he and Marleau have struggled in the face-off circle this year. Then James Sheppard bumped up to second line center? Or perhaps Pavelski slides into a second line center role, but then the Sharks would be extremely thin at the wings with Burns at defense and Pavelski in the middle. In that case their top line wingers from the previous year would now both be at different positions and their top line center out of the lineup. Losing Thornton basically screws everything up for this team. If we’re talking about value to his club, Thornton is right up there with the most valuable in the league.

Now personally, based on all the advanced numbers, my choice right now for the Hart Trophy would be Giroux. Better goals for at even strength, even higher defensive zone start, playing against elite competition, likewise leading a terrific power-play, and dominating in the face-off circle for a team that would be miserable without him. That said, the 35-year-old Thornton has a case, whether you want to believe it or not.

6 thoughts on “Joe Thornton Making a Case for His Second Hart”

  1. Was at the game last night against St Louis, and in the suite I was in I ran into a guy who plays hockey, so I was curious to get his opinion on a lot of things since he probably has a far greater understanding of the game than 99% of all fans, he said Thornton is still a franchise center….and most people have no idea how good he still is even at 35. The game is more than just scoring goals though that is the bottom line result that matters most, but what else are you doing to help your team win and how do you make other players better. If you can make Cheechoo and Nils Ekman into goal scorers you have ridiculous skills. I will say it I like the way Thornton is playing, I like the way the team looks, I like the grit they have added with the younger players and the trade with Dallas. This is going to be a great test for the Sharks in the next 10 days with two games against Anaheim and Los Angeles….learn a lot about this team.

    • Thanks for the comment Ferrall, the trade rumors and criticism of marleau and thornton from upper sharks management gives casual fans and those who don’t understand hockey as much free reign to bag on Jumbo but he is like the man told you, still a franchise center. Top 10 center in the league at 35.

    • The article is about making a cogent point that go beyond points, what does Joe Thornton mean to his team, he is doing a lot of the little things that are not necessarily showing up on the stat sheet. Last night he always looked like the best player on the ice. I will also point out that Marleau has changed his game somewhat this season, he had close to a 1:1 ratio in goals to assists throughout his career, this is why by far right now his best assist to goal ratio of his career, and I thnk that is important, he is willing to do the little things to get his teammates going…20 assists and 7 goals.

  2. I agree 100%, he’s been one of the best since he came into the league, don’t think anyone had more points in the first decade of the new millennium, the only reason he didn’t go to the Olympics was Jonathan toews being a baby, they had fought that year and Thornton destroyed him.

    • Canada won the Gold without jumbo but they won it with him in 2010 too, personally i thought Jumbo makes that team better than getzlaf

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